How To Have A Useless Career


I was recently involved in an interesting discussion regarding some of the most “useless” majors one can study in college. Of note is that this discussion took place in a community devoted to all things visual media, and of course visual media related majors (art, fine art, studio art, photography, video production, etc.) perennially make top ten lists of most useless majors.

For those of us in the various fields related to visual media, lists like these can be a bit ego-deflating. After all, we are reminded year after year that our field is one that is not terribly lucrative, and thus very low on the scale of investment worthy fields of study. Not having been formally educated in any art-related field, I don’t necessarily have the proverbial dog in this fight, although my chosen major (pastoral ministry) often shares the same ignominy.

At any rate, I thought it might be interesting to sift through the meaning that these sorts of rankings hold, and hopefully discover is any visual media related field is worth the cost to study or worth the time to pursue.

What Makes Something Useless

Now, the term “useless” as some of the rankings have it is clearly a piece of click-bait, and can lead to some wrong conclusions. The terminology might lead one to believe that there are no jobs to be had, money to be made or ways to employ that sort of education or skill in the marketplace. Such a conception is easily debunked by even a cursory amount of investigation, and anecdotal evidence itself is not difficult to come by. Clearly there are jobs related to visual media, and people working those jobs. In fact, there are even quite a number of people being successful at it and making a good living. I would like to think myself successful to some extent in creating visual media, and in my own experience perceive that there is indeed a market for that type of product and service.

This being the case, it is instructive to note that when one encounters these types of lists- irrespective of the terminology employed- what is really being got at is this: which majors have the worst ROI (return on investment)?

The basic idea is this: based on the amount of money spent on education compared to the median potential salary or median potential earnings over a career for any given field, art and visual media based majors often have the relatively worst ROI of any given major.

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-8-07-06-pmOften this is broken down in few ways. Firstly, one might look at the 25th percentile income for any given field. For most visual media related fields and majors, this is often under or near $30,000. Other fields typically have much higher 25th percentile earnings; Petroleum engineering, for example, is around around $90,000 (meaning 75% of all in this field earn more than $90,000). If we then imagine a typical student with student loan debts of around $30,000, the degree in Petroleum engineering clearly has an immediately higher ROI, all things beings equal.


That is only the beginning of the comparison, however. For most visual media related fields, the median salary hovers somewhere around $45,000-$49,000, whereas for petroleum engineering (an outlier, to be sure) the median income is around $135,000. Even for a lower paying career like architecture, the median income is closer to $70,000.

Now, the median income is taking all of the range of incomes for any given field, and then finding the middle number (or average of the middle numbers). This means for visual media related fields, while there are certainly many who make really good money at it, there are also many who don’t make good money at it, and then many who make somewhere in the middle. According to the data, for those with bachelor degrees in a visual media related field, there is around a $50,000 spread between the bottom 25th percentile of earners and that of the top 25th percentile; in the case of Arts as a whole, the range of income is from a little over $25,000 to around $75,000 for 50% of those in that field. Architecture and Engineering, on the other hand, has an average spread from $60,000 at the bottom 25th percentile to around $110,000. Again, a very similar spread in income range, but they difference is that the 25th percentile income bottom is higher than the median of all Arts related degrees and within the top 25th percentile of incomes for Arts. Clearly from a purely ROI perspective an Arts degree in this scenario can’t compete in terms of income potential.

Moving Up

One might wonder if pursuing graduate education might help the income potential for visual media related fields? For all Arts-related degrees, there is a 22.9% change in median income for those having graduate degrees (not necessarily in their bachelor degree field of study), which equates to about an $11,000 increase in the median income, from about $49,000 to $60,000. screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-8-07-37-pmHowever, for all Architectural and Engineering majors with graduate degrees, the income bump in percentage is not much higher at around 25%, but since the overall income are higher, that equates to around $21,000 extra in income.screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-8-07-23-pm

This becomes important, as it indicates that for those in the visual media fields, a graduate degree does not necessarily command significantly higher earnings; given that a graduate degree is likely to only increase one’s income by around $11,000, the value of spending what is likely significantly more for graduate work might be heavily mitigated.

Bottom Lines

Money, of course, isn’t everything, and it is not to say that it should be the only consideration when choosing a major. However, it should comprise a large part of the consideration, if for no other reason than that education has a price tag, and that price tag needs to ultimately entail a good ROI; otherwise it can cost more than the potential value it brings.

Consider the earlier example. If we imagine someone getting a degree in Graphic Design, an average starting entry-level salary at an agency might be expected to be somewhere around $35,000 or so. (While I didn’t have a degree in Graphic Design, my first design-related job started at a little over $30,000.) If we then consider that the average student graduating with a bachelor degree has around $30,000 in student loan debt (and that the average 4 year tuition cost is around $36,000 for in-state tuition at state schools), the ROI is fairly low. In effect, one’s education has essentially purchased one’s job, and if one has significant student loan debt then the ROI becomes even worse.

And as we have seen, the income prospects are not exceedingly high. At mid-career in graphic design, the median income is around $50,000, and the top 50th percentile of incomes range from about $50,000 to $75,000, entailing that 75% of those in Graphic Design- even at mid-career, are making less than $75,000 annually. This also means that 50% are making less than $50,000 annually, with the bottom 25th making less than $35,000 mid-career.

As such, if one is considering studying any form of Arts as one’s field of study, it definitely behooves the prospective student to minimize college costs as much as possible sons to maximize ROI. This is no doubt true for any degree, but even more impotently so for any field in visual media, as the likely prospective income is relatively low compared to other fields. Student loan debt is of course a poisonous option in this (and really in any) case, at it would have greater potential to cripple whatever income one was able to obtain after one’s studies are concluded.


Thus, it is clear that while there are jobs to be had in all visual media related fields, as well as plenty of potential clientele, the reality of things is that design and its ilk do not broadly command premiums so as to lead to greater average income outcomes for those in that field. Seen in those terms, it is hard to escape the conclusion that majoring in any sort of visual media related field of study has a relatively poor ROI when compared to income potentials for other fields of study. As a further example, in all Arts related degrees only the top 25% of those in that field make more than $75,000 a year, whereas in all Computer, Statistics and Mathematics related fields that top 75th percentile threshold of Arts incomes is what 50% of CSM degree holders make, and the top 25% start at incomes more than $25,000 higher than the top 25% of Arts incomes start at.

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-8-07-13-pmscreen-shot-2016-10-23-at-8-07-06-pmStated another way, one has a much higher likelihood of commanding a higher median and upper 25th percentile salary than one does with an Arts related degree.

All of this, of course, comes dow to how well one is able to brings one’s education, skills and expertise to bear upon the market. That being the case, it would seem to be incumbent upon all who work in visual media related fields to find resourceful ways to do just that.

In my opinion, developing business and marketing skills are one of the most valuable ways to do this. If you work in a visual media related field, ultimately your job is to sell something. It may not be a tangible product, but your greatest value to the marketplace is not necessarily your creativity, but rather your ability to help your clients either reach the markets they want to reach (in the case of graphic design) or to provide products and services that bring greater value to the client (say in the case of photography or fine art).

The creative aspect flows in and out of that, but if you are not able to market your creativity and demonstrate how it can bring value to your clients, it ultimately will not be able to unlock its potential and work for you in the way it is capable of. After, creativity in and of itself doesn’t have a market value; it is only when it is able to provide a product or a service that the marketplace values that it begins to “work.”


A career in design or any other visual media related field is challenging, and in most cases is not the most lucrative career choice. It is certainly not “useless,” but neither is a golden ticket to riches, which entails that this part of its reality should be borne in mind before embarking on such a career. It can be rewarding in many ways beyond money, but the money always helps, especially if you like to eat.


(All charts from The Economic Value of College Majors, by Georgetown University)

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